Sunday, July 13, 2008

Costs of jail privatization debated in Waco

Reacting to proposed privatization plans for the local jail that only drew one bidder, the Waco Tribune Herald editorial board declares that "turning to a private contractor to run a jail is a cop-out." The paper raises important questions about privatization that arguably apply equally to privatizing treatment services in the state prison system ("Costs of privatization," July 13):

Since control of the Legislature changed hands in 2003, Texas has been in a dither attempting to convert things done by government to things done by private enterprise.

Lawmakers have found out it’s easier said than done.

Time after time the state has had to step back from sweeping privatization edicts. Either too few bidders stepped forward to provide services or those who got contracts dropped the ball.

So while it’s troubling that McLennan County commissioners are considering doing the same with their jail, it’s good that they are going to take their time and not take a leap based on misleading advertising.

That's a great point. The same thing is happening with state proposals to privatize treatment at Substance Abuse Felony Punishment (SAFP) facilities and Transitional Treatment Centers (TTCs). Nobody bid on the contract to provide TTC services, creating serious potential bottlenecks in programming.

I don't inherently oppose privatization, though neither do I consider the idea inherently worthy and in jails and prisons it can create pretty gaping accountability problems. However the lack of bidders on recent projects creates a whole additional set of issues state and local government must now face.

Should jails and prisons really only provide services "the market" is willing to provide? When there is no market - or if the market consists only of one bidding firm - shouldn't government go ahead and pay its own freight? I understand why privatization should be an option, but why should it be desired when it limits government options instead of expanding them?

Right now federal immigration enforcement is driving dynamics in the private prison industry. Immigrant detention contracts are much more lucrative than county or state lockups, so as long as US Attorneys in Texas' Southern and Western Districts keep filling their dockets with politically popular immigration cases, local jails and Texas state prisons will be unattractive options for privatization - the handful of firms in the market can simply make more money housing less dangerous immigrant detainees. That's likely the cause for their short-term disinterest.

OTOH, in the long-term the private prison industry's over-reliance on immigration detention creates significant risk for McLennan County if US immigration laws ever changed and private prison demand declined. For that reason, IMO the editorial board gave privatization proponents an unnecessary pass by not more thoroughly interrogating claims of cost savings. They wrote:

Yes, privatizing the jail likely will save money. A bidder will do whatever it needs, cut every necessary corner, to meet any dollar figure that will win its way into a government contract.

The fine print is that private enterprise won’t necessarily do the job better, or with sufficient accountability that taxpayers know that it is so.

I agree private companies may cut corners, but there's actually quite a bit more fine print than that involved and I wouldn't be so certain at all that privatization will save money. That's because the McLennan County Commissioners Court proposes significantly overbuilding the jail so a private contractor can make extra money renting out space to others. As the Tribune Herald reported in May:
Commissioners hope to look far enough into the future and build a large-enough jail that can help pay for itself or make money for McLennan County by leasing prisoner space to other counties with overcrowded jails
So alleged savings only occur if the county can rent extra capacity to other, which assumes that detention rates remain at their current astronomical levels. If under a new President Congress implements comprehensive immigration reform, all the private facilities currently housing immigrants could begin competing with the county's overbuilt facility, leaving taxpayers holding the bag paying long-term debt for jail space they don't need because a bad business bet didn't pay off.

Related Grits coverage:


Michael said...

I think it's worth emphasizing (again) that the real problem with privatizing jails is government is trying to solve the drug problem by making it a criminal problem. This may make it easier for "tough on crime" sheriffs and DAs to get elected, but in the long run contributes to the problem, rather than the solution. Private companies aren't designed to comply or even know the Bill of Rights. That's the bare minimum they'd need to be effective as prisons; but it would be nice if we had some rehabilitation thrown in for good measure. What's the incentive for a private prison to rehabilitate an inmate, when its profits depend on filling its cells?

tjbbpgob said...

Amen to that Micheal. the only reason jails are overcrowded is that EVERY LITTLE THING is now a crime. I remember back in the late 60's when drug addicts, users and sellers were turned out on the street by liberal, panty waisted judges. Well, we wanted tougher laws and sentences and now that we have them we don't want our taxes raised to pay for them. I would hate to see privatizing of prisons and jails, for just as you say, they have no responsibility to the voters.

Anonymous said...

I just wonder why no one on these articles and comments ever seems to mention that it is the federal government that is bringing in the drugs.

As long as that fact is suppressed, there can be no real solutions to the problems as in this article and so many others here.